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15 Must-Do Activities In Santa Fe And Albuquerque

Updated: Jan 4, 2023

New Mexico surprised me. It wasn't a state that I had heard much about from those who travel a lot, and there weren't specific locations or events that seemed to be well-known (besides the hot air balloon festival). Even though I had planned to spend a few days in the Santa Fe and Albuquerque area and had done some research beforehand, I was expecting to get my photo in front of the capitol building and then, from there, mosey around the museums, and that was about it.

Instead, I discovered that New Mexico has a lot to offer travelers and found two cities brimming with history, a unique culture, delicious food, outdoor excursions and a variety of attractions. If you're interested in any of these things I've listed, you HAVE to plan a trip to New Mexico. (And, no, I'm not getting paid to say this.)

So, let's look at 15 different activities in Santa Fe and Albuquerque that might even get you interested in touring the rest of the state.

What You'll Find In This Blog Post:


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Before we get to all of the unique things you can do in these two cities, here are a few general insights to keep in mind for your trip.


Albuquerque has free places to park in most of its areas except for downtown. Santa Fe, on the other hand, has parking meters just about everywhere you go that's touristy. Rather than using coins, I suggest downloading the ParkMobile app, which will allow you to pay from your credit card as well as update how much time you need if you find, for instance, you're going to take longer in a museum than you originally planned.

New Mexican Food

Although most states in the U.S. might not have a cuisine that's specific to them, New Mexico definitely does! It's a fusion of Pueblo and Mexican flavors and cooking, and you should know that chile is king (and why New Mexico has been called the "Chile Capital of the World"). So, consider seeking out local restaurants and dishes to get a more authentic taste of New Mexico.

The Cultural Pass

My biggest piece of advice for making the most of your Santa Fe/Albuquerque (or New Mexico, in general) trip, is to get the Culture Pass. All you have to pay is $30 for this ticket, and you'll get into 15 museums and historic sites around the state, many of which are in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

You can purchase the Culture Pass at any of the 15 locations. The date you purchased it will be written on the ticket, and you'll have a year from that date to use it. Just keep in mind that the Culture Pass only allows you to visit each museum and historic site once throughout that year. Of course, you can go to these places again, but you'll just have to pay the full price the second time.

Most of the attractions aren't extremely expensive, but I did save $30 using the Culture Pass after visiting just six of the 15 places. I still have a full year to take advantage of the remaining nine museums and historic sites that are a part of this deal.


Santa Fe is the more historic place out of the two cities. Not only is it the location of the state's capitol building, but you'll also find the oldest public building, oldest church and oldest house in the U.S. here. There is much to learn about our country's past.

Additionally, many of the adobe buildings have been preserved, so in most parts of the city, it feels almost as though you've stepped into another country for a time. And Santa Fe is a great spot to get a sense of New Mexican traditions. If you're interested in learning about its history and culture, below are some activities to help get you started.

1. Check out the New Mexico History Museum and The Palace of Governors.

To fully get to know New Mexico, it’s important to understand its history. And while there are a lot of museums in Santa Fe and Albuquerque that will showcase this, the best place to go for a detailed look is the New Mexico History Museum (*Culture Pass). Here, you’ll learn about the state and the main events that have taken place over the years in chronological order.

Keep in mind that this museum is long and packed full of information, so set aside some time (2-3 hours) when you go. Additionally, as in many places in New Mexico, most of the museum is in English and Spanish, further highlighting one of the cool aspects of the state’s culture.

Your visit to the New Mexico History Museum also includes The Palace of Governors. Said to be the oldest public building in the U.S., it was erected in 1610 and served as the seat of government for centuries. Inside, you’ll find another small museum, but it’s also important to take in the sight of the building itself. The Palace of Governors’ historical and architectural significance has led to its National Historic Landmark title and “National Treasure” recognition by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

2. Go on a (self-guided) chapel tour.

Santa Fe is the perfect place to go on a short but insightful historic church tour, and you can do it all within your own time. There are four beautiful buildings that you must see:

1. San Miguel Mission: This adobe building is the oldest church in the U.S. According to approximate history, its construction began in 1610, and some of its original walls are still standing. When you visit, you’ll be able to read more about its history, preservation and religious features.

  • Hours: Monday-Friday 1-3 PM; Sunday 3-5 PM

  • Cost: Free (donations are appreciated)

2. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi: This beautiful church houses the oldest representation of the Virgin Mary in the U.S. Upon entering, you’ll receive a pamphlet with a suggested self-guided tour. It will explain the cathedral’s history, architectural style, different indoor and outdoor sections, symbols, statues and other religious items.

  • Hours: Tuesday-Friday 9:30 AM - 4 PM; Saturday 9:30 AM - 3 PM

  • Cost: Free (donations are appreciated)

3. Loretto Chapel: Known for its helix-shaped “miraculous staircase” — the staircase does two 360-degree turns without a center pole for support — this church was constructed for the Loretto Academy, a school for girls. You can learn more about its history and the structure of the staircase through a running audio commentary within the chapel.

  • Hours: Daily 9 - 5 PM

  • Cost: $5

4. The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe: Built between 1776 and 1795, this is the oldest church standing dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. After viewing the bronze statue and other artwork outside, consider heading inside. There, you’ll receive a brochure with the shrine’s timeline and the sanctuary’s treasures.

  • Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday 11 AM - 4 PM

  • Cost: Free (donations are appreciated)

3. Step inside the oldest house in the United States.

Sitting right next to the San Miguel Mission is The "Oldest" House, which is considered to be the oldest house in the U.S. Some suggest it was built around 1646, though no one knows for sure. It is free to visit, and currently, the building is split up into two different sections: a gift shop and a museum of sorts.

The gift shop will greet you as you go into the house, but then a small hallway with photos of some of the reconstruction of the house will take you into the old adobe home. Here, you'll find a setup showing what the home might have looked like years ago, along with historic furniture pieces.

4. Shop, dine and stay at the plaza.

The plaza has the look and feel of a traditional Spanish Plaza and is basically the heart of Santa Fe. There are museums, chapels, a park and eateries all within a short walking distance. You'll find luxurious hotels to stay and rest in like La Fonda on the Plaza and Inn & Spa at Loretto.

And this is the prime place to shop in the city, especially if you're looking for unique and touristic items. There are art galleries, bookstores, boutiques and even Native artisans selling their creations like jewelry and rugs near the Palace of the Governors and along other streets near the plaza.

5. Drink a chocolate flight at Kakawa Chocolate House.

For those who love chocolate, the Kakawa Chocolate House is a place of paradise. Using its custom-blended chocolate, the company creates chocolate bars, chocolate "candies" (solids, truffles, caramels, clusters, mendiants, etc.); ice cream and other treats. But it's most famous for its elixirs, or rich drinking chocolates, which are recreations of some historic drinks that go all the way back to the Mayan and Aztec time periods.

There are three types of elixirs at Kakawa Chocolate House:

  • Mesoamerican elixirs are not very sweet and likely have spicy chili, spices and herbs inside.

  • European elixirs are sweeter and often more floral.

  • Contemporary elixirs include modern flavors like sweet American, Mexican cinnamon, Tonantzin, chocolate Chai and Havana Rum.

In order to make the most of your experience at the Kakawa Chocolate House, in addition to trying some of the chocolate treats, I suggest buying a flight. Similar to a wine tasting or beer flight, you'll get to try four different chocolate elixirs and really get an idea of what elixirs are and their various flavor profiles as well as a warm drink to enjoy.

6. Spend some time at Museum Hill.

Museum Hill is where you can visit most of the museums and more in Santa Fe. It includes the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Museum of International Folk Art (*Culture Pass), Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (*Culture Pass), Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe Botanical Garden, Museum Hill Cafe and International Folk Art Market.

My favorite place was the Museum of International Folk Art. It was so unique! There were exhibits on the Hispanic folk music of New Mexico, creative face masks, the evolution of how Scandinavia dress and the ghosts and demons of Japan. Finally, located in the biggest room, you'll encounter "Multiple Visions: A Common Bond." This exhibit has been around for at least 25 years and includes more than 100,000 objects, which are all miniature things and people that have been placed into different sets to show the culture and folklore of more than 100 countries.


Albuquerque is bigger than Santa Fe and almost like a more modern version of it. Old Town is the most historic area here, but outside of that, you'll discover a bustling place with contemporary architecture and some of your typical city attractions, such as a zoo and aquarium, a natural history and science museum, a downtown filled with skyscrapers, sports games, theaters, etc. and even a tramway.

But this isn't to say that Albuquerque is just like any other big city. Rather, it has plenty of diverse attractions to add to your list.

7. Tour the Coronado Historic Site.

Just outside of Albuquerque, on your way from Santa Fe, you’ll discover one of New Mexico’s many historic sites: the ruins of Kuaua Pueblo, also known as the Coronado Historic Site (*Culture Pass). According to history, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado entered the Rio Grande valley with soldiers and indigenous allies in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. Instead, he found a dozen villages with native people/farmers (who they called Pueblo Indians). They supplied Coronado and his men for the two years that followed, but later, conflict with Coronado and Spanish explorers led to the abandonment of many villages, including Kuaua, which was one of the northernmost villages.

At this site, you’ll get to view the Kuaua ruins (they’re a replica due to how easily they settle back into the ground), an underground ceremonial kiva with mural paintings as well as 14 original, recovered murals pieced together and displayed in the visitor’s center. These murals are some of the greatest examples of Pre-Columbian art in the U.S. While it’s easy to look through the artifacts on display in the small museum at the visitor’s center, you’ll want to get a tour of everything else. (I was lucky to be given a tour by a local, retired history teacher who explained all of the symbols in the murals.)

8. Grab coffee and goodies at a local bakery.

Albuquerque has some great food options, and more specifically, some really yummy bakeries. While there were a lot of local options, I only had time to visit two shops — which are very different from each other — that I really loved: Golden Crown Panaderia and The Burque Bakehouse.

Golden Crown Panaderia has been around since 1972, is family owned and prides itself on being an “old-fashioned neighborhood bakery.” And it definitely has that homey feel to it, particularly because the owners (father and son) and workers are so kind, talkative and helpful and because of the fact that you can watch them make the goods in the kitchen.

You’ll find traditional New Mexican recipes here, such as empanadas and green chile bread, in addition to other foods and drinks. It’s especially known for its pizza, coffee shake and biscochitos, or New Mexico’s official state cookie.

The Burque Bakehouse is a French-influenced, walk-up shop, so although you won’t be able to hang around and enjoy your morning coffee or pastry, it’s worth the stop. The bakery sells some normal and some unique offerings as well as seasonal treats, from breads and pastries to teas and coffees. I enjoyed the Dark Berry Crisp Danish, Twice-Baked Almond Croissant, and I really loved the Mulled Wine and Red Fruits Jam I brought home. Delicious!

The Burque Bakehouse is also a part of the Bread Lab Collective, which means it sells bread that contains no more than seven ingredients and there are no non–food ingredients. Everything is also at least 60-100% whole wheat and priced under $6.

9. Take a photo of the San Felipe de Neri Church.

You might as well tack the San Felipe de Neri Church onto your chapel tour even though it’s located in Albuquerque. This parish is one of the oldest buildings in the city: the original church was constructed in 1706, but it collapsed in 1792, so it had to be rebuilt. Now, other than a few areas that have been restored or redone, the church has the same adobe structure from 1793 and is still in use as a church and a school.

After you take some photos of the outside of the church, head inside (the door on the left side of the building) where there’s a gift shop, a small museum with religious furnishings and art, and access to the sanctuary. The museum is open every day from 10 AM to 4:30 PM. You can also schedule a full tour by contacting the church.

10. Take a look at the artwork at the sculpture gardens.

Apparently, there are a few places with a sculpture garden in Albuquerque. My GPS decided to take me to 4100 Montano Rd NW first when I searched for “sculpture garden.” And although this wasn’t what I was looking for, this small park area near some trailheads was really cool! Artists have turned some of the trees there into sculptures of animals, such as birds and wolves, and people. It’s free and a short sightseeing and outdoor activity.

The more popular sculpture garden in Albuquerque, however, is right in front of and inside the Albuquerque Museum and features more than 50 pieces of art. If you prefer a cheaper activity, just take a look at the sculptures outside, but if you’re willing to spend a little and have the time, head inside the museum to see more artwork and history.

11. Reserve a table at The St. James Tearoom.

And I should also say, reserve a table far in advance! The St. James Tearoom is the place to be — it’s almost always solidly booked close to the date you want a table. And why should you visit? The St. James Tearoom is a fine dining experience, and an elegant yet whimsical one at that. It provides a two-hour teatime in British fashion with savories, breads, sweets, wines and champagnes, and, of course, teas.

The tearoom presents a new menu each month that’s inspired by a season, literary or historical theme. It has 17 unique parlor areas (all secluded for you or you and your party with curtains) that you can choose from to chat with friends, read a book by yourself, or even dress up with your travel companions and make it a themed afternoon event for the day.

The St. James Tearoom also hosts special events where you can step back in time, become a connoisseur or learn a new skill. There is a Market Village, too, where you’ll find teas, tea sets and other china, books, stationery, clothing accessories and pastries to take home with you.

12. Visit the historic Route 66 sites.

Did you know that Route 66 runs through Albuquerque? And while you'll visit many of the historic sites already by just exploring the popular attractions, there are some specific Mother Road places you should check out:

  • Old Town includes the San Felipe de Neri Church, museums, galleries, eateries and southwestern shops.

  • Nob Hill was one of the first centralized shopping areas west of the Mississippi River.

  • The University of New Mexico was founded in 1889 and is the state's largest university.

  • KiMo Theatre is known for its Pueblo Deco architecture and was originally built to show vaudeville acts.

  • Downtown Albuquerque, located on Central Avenue, is a thriving commercial district and is the only place in which Route 66 intersects itself.

  • The 66 Diner is a 50s-style restaurant with burgers and sandwiches, a soda fountain and a vintage jukebox.

  • The Alvarado Transportation Center sits where the rail station and Alvarado Hotel used to be and is the hub for Albuquerque's ground transportation.

  • Lindy’s opened in 1929 and might be the oldest continuously operating Route 66 diner in the state.

13. Walk the trails at the Petroglyph National Monument.

The Petroglyph National Monument is one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America. Petroglyphs are rock carvings, and in Albuquerque, these designs and symbols, done by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400-700 years ago, can be found on volcanic rocks.

This monument includes three canyons with trails for viewing the petroglyphs:

  • Boca Negra Canyon: You can view around 100 petroglyphs on the trails here in approximately 1 hour. (Hours: 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM daily; $1 parking fee on weekdays; $2 parking fee on weekends.) Learn more here.

  • Rinconada Canyon: This 2.2-mile trail (roundtrip) features up to 300 petroglyphs as well as the remnants of volcanic eruptions. (Hours: 8 AM to 5 PM daily) Learn more here.

  • Piedras Marcadas Canyon: There are up to 400 petroglyphs on this 1.5-mile unpaved trail round trip. (Hours: sunrise to sunset) Learn more here.

There is an information center (open 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM) with a park store, but note that there are no trails near it. Additionally, there are a few more trails in the Volcanoes Day Use Area as well as an overlook.

14. Wine and dine at Mas Tapas Y Vino.

If you’re feeling a bit bougie one evening, make your way to Hotel Andaluz and order some drinks and Spanish cuisine at MAS Tapas Y Vino. As a full-service tapas bar and restaurant, MAS offers “fresh reinventions of traditional Spanish cuisine.” Its ingredients are also locally sourced, organic and fresh.

I had the Berkshire Pork Belly there (with Anasazi bean ragout, toasted corn and harissa-sherry reduction), which melted in my mouth and was to die for. The chef (NMRA chef of the year and voted 3x "Best Chef in the City") even gives out a sample of his signature spice rub for customers to take home. You can also consider staying at Hotel Andaluz while you’re touring Albuquerque.

15. Go to the world’s largest air balloon festival.

Albuquerque is most known for its yearly hot air balloon event: the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival. This is a nine-day festival in October in which more than 500 colorful balloons take to the skies. It’s the world’s largest event of its kind with entertainment, food and more. So, consider planning your Albuquerque/Santa Fe trip around this festival, OR get tickets and make an extra trip out to see this incredible sight.


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